Monday, April 27, 2009

Multi-genre writers

One other trend in my reading these days is that I am reading books that (apparently) everyone in the literate world has read, but I have somehow managed to miss. First up in this set of books is Bill Bryson's 2003 instant classic A Short History of Nearly Everything which I started reading last week.

I am struck by how at-home Bryson sounds in the book. Popular science writing is not for everyone. You need to know enough of the science to really know what you are talking about. And then, you need to recognize what is central to the concept and what can be abstracted away. Finally, you need to be able to talk about it in a way that is interesting. Not easy skills, these. Which is why you don't hear the phrase 'part time science writer' very often.

Which gets me to the multiple talents of the good Mr. Bryson. And to my question for today - which authors have been able to write successful books across very different genres? Clearly, Bryson is close to the head of the list. He has written great travel books, memorable science books, great books on the English language (notably The mother tongue and how it got that way) and a noted biography of Shakespeare.

Roald Dahl is another great in this category, mixing his classic children's books (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda ...) with his adult stories of the macabre (of which my favorites are Switch Bitch, Tales of the Unexpected, and Someone Like You). If this wasn't crazy enough for one author, he threw in a few curveballs - or googlies, for those inclined to cricket - with stuff like film scripts (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), poetry and non-fiction.

Vikram Seth comes to mind, with his memorable poetry works (my favorite - Beastly Tales from Here and There) and sensitive prose fiction.

Margaet Atwood, best known for her fiction, including the Booker winning The Blind Assassin, and her collections of poetry, recently also released a book on economics and the current global crisis called Payback. Now that's a combination you don't often see!

Isaac Asimov - Best known for his Sci-Fi and popular science work, but who wrote on so many topics that Wikipedia informs me he published in 9 out of the 10 major subject categories in the Dewey Decimal System! (The one subject he missed - probably forgot - was philosophy and psychology).

That is a pretty impressive list. But really short. Am I missing someone obvious?


  1. No one obvious. I'd suggest Umberto Eco and even Carl Sagan. On the less serious side, Arthur Conan Doyle and his ambitions to be remembered for his histories ...